Monday, December 31, 2007

2007 wrap-up

Self-Criticism look back at '07
Well, a really pathetic finish to what started out as a torrid year of reading. I do have some very good excuses, but ultimately, despite them, I think had I just focused a little more and spent less time noodling around on the internet I could have easily gotten the 50. My excuses were that I was in school full time and the final semester was really busy, with a group project to graduate. Everybody seems to agree that group projects are always a nightmare and this was no exception. On top of that, there was a last-minute real estate Step to Maturity in December. So reasonable excuses, but still, if I had spent those 10-20 minutes just reading instead of arguing on some obscure forum the role of narrative in roleplaying games, I probably would easily have reached my goal.

This year, though, I really did get some great reading done. I finished the awesome (though sadly not truly completed) Amtrak series. I got into George Pelecanos, a great find and got a taste of Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly, also very promising. I read some must-read sci-fi authors, like Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Charles Wilson, Tim Powers and Arthur C. Clarke. And I found a few gens here and there, like the Wreck of the Dumaru, Among Madmen and Conquest in California. Finally, it was a big year for me for Christopher Priest and Chuck Palahniuk, both of whose writing has given me a lot of enjoyment. The truth is that, despite the crumbling of civil society and the general idiocy level of most of the population of the developed world, there are still tons of great books out there and great authors still producing excellent writing and story. I am thankful for their hard and creative work.

Congrats to Others
Kudos to Print is Dead, who just kicked some serious ass this year. Not only did he read 62 books, but he also brought in a wide range of titles, introducing me to some sci-fi authors I hadn't heard of, as well as keeping me up to date on some interesting graphic novels. Honorable mention to June 23rd, with a solid 27 and to the steady MtBensonReport, who pulled through a tough and distracting year with some interesting titles (though with his all-time low of 15 books read, he's definitely going to get some good draft picks this year). Another Honorable Mention to LeBraconnier, a newcomer who started off strong, but had a quiet 4th quarter as he worked towards bringing a new reader into the world. And finally, I can't end this year without recognizing Meezly's strong showing. She's becoming a pretty impressive used bookstore patron herself these days, coming out with an armload of titles I've never heard of.

Looking Ahead
As for next year, I am shooting again for 50. I'll be working fulltime, but no more school (assuming I pass all my classes in the final semester). So it should be doable. We have a strong new addition to the meme, Doc Holaday, who has already posted a bunch of interesting books to read from his own past and looks, based on past productivity I have seen from him in other cultural contexts, to be quite strong. Finally, I hope we can see more from Buzby this year, who brought a lot of excellent non-fiction to the table in 2006. He has a good excuse for his no-show in 07 (another new reader on its way), but I think he will be able to step it up this year.

Good luck on '08 everybody! Let's do this!

46. Right as Rain by John Pelecanos

Right as Rain picture

A very solid and enjoyable effort. Many of the themes that were present in the Washington Quartet are here in this book, but it being a one-shot allowed me to just get into the story. Pelecano has a strong voice and consistent themes (relationships between black and white men, men trying to get their life back together, inner city economic failure) and I suspect that they may get a bit repetitive. However, so far this hasn't happened for me. One reason is that I agree with his themes. He's clearly an American who is proud of his country, but who is outraged by what has happened to it. He sympathizes with the underdog and the downtrodden and he has clearly seen enough of that to know that's often where the real, hardworking and proud America still exists. Another reason is that his characters, the main and the secondary ones, are cool and entertaining. The main guys are badasses in the right, subtle way and he has all kinds of rich secondary characters, like redneck meth farmers and corrupt cops.

I'm a fan of Pelecanos, but I'm going to space out reading his books. Maybe one every 6 months, maximum.

45. Ripley Under Water by Patricia Highsmith

Ripley Under Water picture

This is the 4th book in the fantastic Ripley series. I actually was suprised to see that there are 5 books in the series. I've been avoiding the Ripley series in the last couple of years, just because I have gotten so much pleasure from her stand-alone books. But I found this in a used bookstore in Berkeley for a decent price and figured it was about time to catch up with everyone's favorite civilized sociopath (or is he?).

This novel revisits the guilt of Ripley's past crimes as an American couple moves into his small french town and start intimating that they know what he's done. This moves into a campaign of subtle and not-so-subtle harrassment that forces Ripley to react. You definitely need to have read the previous Ripley books to enjoy and follow this one. There were at times so many reference catch-ups and backstory explanations that it got a bit annoying. I think it was a while between this and the last one and Highsmith was either reminding herself or her editor made her do it.

Despite these small interruptions from the flow, the book is really engaging. At this point, you've kind of come full circle with Ripley. As a reader, you are totally rooting for him (at least I was), though Highsmith still does a fantastic job of making you feel slightly uncomfortable with this. His opponent seems just as psychotic as Ripley, but he's uncivilized about it, so you hate him. It's hilariously ironic to read Ripley's thoughts about the antagonist and his wife and how abnormal and psychotic he thinks they must be.

The whole Ripley series is a study of morality. She pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable, taking the reader along with Ripley in his love of fine foods, good music, pleasant conversation and the french countryside as well as his penchance for a little murder or corpse-hiding when these things become necessary.

What is weird to me is how when the first Ripley movie came out, there was this big flurry of "re-discovering" Highsmith, with lengthy articles in (where else) the tiresome New Yorker. As if her literary legacy had completely vanished. But her books were being constantly published in the 80s and 90s and you can still find tons of used copies in non-movie branded versions. I suspect that the mystery-reading community (especially in England) has always considered her to be a mainstay. It's just that suddenly money in the form of a big movie found her and now "real" literary critics have decided that she has now surpassed the lowly depths of her genre and is allowed to be elevated to their lofty heights.

If you have never read any Highsmith, you definitely should. As I say, her books can be found in decent quantities in most used bookstores. If you are going to read the Ripleys, start at the beginning. They are a greater commitment, but definitely worth it. But any of her other books are just as rewarding and sometimes much darker and more disturbing.

Here is the order of the Ripley books:

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)
Ripley Under Ground (1970)
Ripley's Game (1974)
The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980)
Ripley Under Water (1991)

Holy disaster! I see that I made a terrible error. Ripley Under Water is the last in the series! I assumed that it was the penultimate one based on the listing I found inside two books. Wow. That screws me up. Now I am going to have to scramble to read The Boy Who Followed Ripley and then try and fold it under the last one in my brain. Not easy to do, people. This is what you get when you just buy books willy-nilly without a plan.

44. Gamesmanship by Stephen Potter

gamesmanship picture

My dad recommended this to me. He told me that when he was at UBC in the 50s, Stephen Potter came to do a lecture. He described him as a small, unassuming looking man who spoke very quietly and soberly, but by the end my dad laughed so hard that his ribs hurt.

It's a manual on how to defeat your opponent without actually being skilled at a sport or cheating. The games are british popular sports from the early middle of the 20th century: lawn tennis, croquet, billiards, golf. It's a very slim manual, with a few hilarious diagrams and instructions on how to have the more sympathetic injury, or how to create an inflated reputation. The humour is sometimes very dry and couched in very different cultural mores, but the spirit is the same today and this book will appeal to anyone with a competitive spirit. I laughed out loud many times and I will definitely use some of the techniques here.

He also has a book called Lifemanship that I definitely want to read.

I recommend it highly.

43. Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk

survivor picture
I've read enough of Palahniuk's books, that I am starting to get a sense of his style. Sometimes there is too much style in his writing. It becomes clever and precious. However, he so far has always laid his style on a solid foundation of story. Things happen in interesting ways in Palahniuk's books. This is certainly the case with Survivor, where I enjoyed most of the ride, but at times felt a bit like I was plodding through the repetitive parts to find out what happened next. In the end, it won me over. This book has some really crazy ideas in it and pretty imaginative over-the-top stuff goes down. It's worth a read.

42. Tricked by Alex Robinson

tricked picture
I really don't know anything about the context of this graphic novel. I just found it in the english section of the comic book wing at the bibliotheque nationale. It had a nice, solid line style and what looked like an engaging storyline from the few snippets I skimmed.

The story follows six characters in their individual threads. They all take place in or around a major midwestern city (Chicago?) and as the narrative progresses, you start to see the gradually increasing connections between the threads. Each story is intriguing and the characters interesting. And the payoff was, at least for me, satisfying.

A good read. Pick it up if you see it at your local comic shop or library.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

41. Somebody Owes Me Money

somebody picture

I read this book actually about a month ago and completely forgot about it. It had been in my on deck lineup for a while (possibly through the Mt. Benson report). I'm a huge Westlake fan, particularily his Parker books under the Richard Stark Pseudonym. His earlier novels often show little flashes of the granite hardness and cynical criminal knowledge of that incomparable series, so I always like to read them. Somebody Owes Me Money was much more in the light vein, with a lot of emphasis on the life of a humble NYC cabbie and gambler. It was wrapped around a not that intriguing mystery and the kind of clever idea that the murdered guy was the protagonist's bookie who owed him on a big win. In order to get paid, the hero has to solve the mystery. It passed the time. Got me to #41.

In looking for a picture for this book, I'm a little surprised to discover that Hard Case Crime is re-publishing it. I'm not sure it merits it. But I'm glad for any extra money that gets into Westlake's pocket. He deserves it. The copy I read is an old Signet paperback from 1971.